What it’s about vs. how it goes about it: my history with romance novels

A couple of weeks ago the fabulous Jo Walton wrote a post about, as she put it, going from someone who had no idea why anyone would want to read romance novels to someone who will enthusiastically discuss the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer.

After reading some twentieth-century romance novels in her late teens, Walton came to the following conclusion:

[Romance novels] seemed to be bait in a trap — offering a kind of love that isn’t possible as the only kind of love that is desirable, and offering love itself as the only worthwhile life goal for a woman. … Women needn’t expect to have adventures or achieve anything, they would have looooove, twoo wuv, and it would be enough. … So by the time I was twenty, I was not only somebody who didn’t read romances, I was somebody who was actively opposed to genre romance and saw it as literally a snare and a delusion.

Although I’m almost two decades younger than Walton, my experience with romance novels bears a striking resemblance to hers.  I read my first romance novel when I was fourteen or fifteen.  I was staying with my family at a small hotel that had a collection of books for guests to borrow.  One of those books was Kathleen Woodiweiss’s The Flame and the Flower, which the cover billed as “the classic tale of passion and romance!” (or something like that).  My mother had told me that romance novels were “trash” and not worth my time.  But hey, when you’re fifteen, what does your mom know?  I snuck it off the shelves and read it in my room away from my parents’ watchful eyes.

The Flame and the Flower remains the worst book I have ever read.  Yes, it was worse than Twilight.  Wait — that still doesn’t cover how bad it was.  I would rather re-read Twilight ten times than subject myself to The Flame and the Flower again.  The Flame and the Flower was not only terribly written with unlikeable characters and a nonsensical, idiotic plot — it was offensive, and offensive on so many levels that I struggle to describe them all.  Let’s just say I’m not a fan of books that portray sexual assault as a natural and exciting part of courtship.

I was flabbergasted that anyone considered this a “classic” and when we got home, I went to the Internet to see what people were saying about the book.  I found a few readers who had reacted the way I did.  I also found legions of romance novel fans writing about how The Flame and the Flower was their “all-time favorite book” and how one day they hoped to find a man just like Brandon.  Horrified, I (mentally) ran screaming from the romance genre as fast as my (mental) legs could carry me.

I dipped my toes back in the romance novel waters a few years later when a close friend begged me to give romance another try and loaned me some of her favorites, but I quickly realized that even the books she’d recommended shared a tiresome set of tropes.  A spirited young heroine attracts the attention of a mysterious older man who has a Sad Past.  He thinks he can never fall in love, but then he meets the heroine.  Meanwhile, for some reason they’re in danger, and the heroine learns that being spirited and daring isn’t always a good thing and if the hero tells her to do something she should do it without question because he’s ever so much smarter and more capable than she is.  At some point they have sex.  Then they finally admit they’re in love.  If there’s an epilogue the heroine is definitely pregnant in it.  The end.

That just wasn’t a story I found inherently interesting.  More disturbingly, I felt like these historical romances were trying to sell me on a model of romantic love that I had no interest in buying, a model in which the man is always right (unless they’re talking about feelings, then the woman is always right) and the woman’s adorable quirks are tolerated but not taken seriously.  For someone who’d cut her literary teeth on romances between equals — think Harry and Corlath in The Blue Sword or Jill and Rhodry in Daggerspell* — this seemed like a huge and stupid step backwards.**  Also, I really hated most of the tortured alpha male romance novel “heroes.”  Heathcliff knockoffs, every damn one of them.

Then, just after college, I picked up a copy of Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It.  I loved every sunny, funny, quirky page.  I started devouring the rest of Crusie’s books.  It wasn’t until I read an offhanded comment on a message board about Crusie being someone’s favorite romance author that I realized the truth.  I’d been reading romance novels.  And they weren’t sexist or moronic or offensive.

All of this, I think, is a very long-winded way of explaining how I learned Roger Ebert’s classic maxim: a story isn’t good or bad because of what it’s about, it’s good or bad because of how it goes about it.  With Crusie’s example in front of me I finally understood that a book could be about two people falling in love without employing 1950s gender roles or making you want to strangle the protagonists.  I still don’t find that “boy meets girl” is a story that speaks to me in and of itself, but as Walton says, there are some “boy meets girl”-type novels where I’m happy to ride along for the scenery, i.e. clever writing and memorable characters.  My reading life would be poorer if I hadn’t grown out of my disdain for romance.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read some Georgette Heyer.

Have you ever changed your mind about a genre?  Anyone else have a traumatic encounter with romance novels at an early age?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*  Come to think of it, this is probably the biggest reason I love fantasy.  When authors build their own worlds, there are no limits on the roles women can play in them.

**  I’ve heard romance novel fans, including my friend, defend the unequal relationships in the books on historical grounds and claim I’m projecting my own feminism into inappropriate contexts.  I’m not sure I buy it.  Think about Jane Austen’s best books.  Pride and Prejudice doesn’t end with Darcy patting Lizzy on the head and promising to do the thinking for both of them from now on.

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3 comments on “What it’s about vs. how it goes about it: my history with romance novels

  1. Guys, in the interest of not getting my blog flagged as “mature” and/or not drawing some creepy search terms, I just deleted a comment here. I hate doing that, so let’s keep the discussion Safe For Work 😉

  2. Jesselyn Girl says:

    I too hate romance novels. I actually tried reading Crusie I think. My sister left a copy of Faking It in the bathroom one day but I wasn’t entirely captivated. I did really like Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed. Which I classify as chick lit/romance. Granted the romance was a more a side note rather than the whole story.
    I, however, do love what they call “paranormal romances” do those count as romances?

  3. Bri says:

    I’ll be honest, I read a LOT of romances as an impressionable teenager, and their appeal was threefold:

    1) sexytiems (having no access to the library’s grim and much-handled copy of The Joy of Sex, this is where I got some of my sex ed. Truth be told, it was pretty easy to tell which authors actually knew what it was like).
    2) historical details!!! Natural for a future history major.
    3) escapism and a guaranteed happy ending. While scifi/fantasy offered escape, the guaranteed happy ending was the special domain of romance.

    There was a very worthwhile article on the awl.com about romance’s redeeming qualities, http://www.theawl.com/2012/02/romance-novels. There are lots of reasons to enjoy romance and not feel bad about it.

    But as an adult, to be honest, one of my favorite things to do is read terrible terrible romances/chick lit and giggle through it (oh, Sophie Kinsella…). To that end, if you’d ever like to feel horribly aghast/amazed/amused, I recommend reading The Sheik (I review this on my blog), which is one of the older sexual assault romances. Also, The Legend of Blackoaks, which has incredible racial/sexual plots and subplots. It is, as graduate students might say, PROBLEMATIC.

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